Malaysia's new government will last until the next general election, former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad predicted Wednesday, as he conceded that he no longer had the majority parliamentary support he claimed just before Muhyiddin Yassin was sworn in to replace him.
Mahathir’s comments, which seemingly acknowledged the strength of the new government, came as Muhyiddin convened his first cabinet meeting and told reporters that he and the 94-year-old former leader had exchanged letters.
“[Muhyiddin] can retain [government] until the next general election,” Mahathir told the Malay-language newspaper Sinar Harian, referring to the next balloting expected to take place in 2023.
Mahathir also acknowledged that a no-confidence vote in parliament against the new leader would likely “not succeed.”
“We had more than 114 seats but now that has become less. … This is because he [Muhyiddin] has taken my people to his side,” Mahathir said, indicating that his supporters had switched sides after being lured with ministerial posts.
Muhyiddin, who once served as an interior minister in Mahathir’s cabinet, agreed with the former prime minister’s comments that he had enough support from legislators to survive a parliamentary challenge.
“Of course. If not, I would not be here,” Muhyiddin told his post-cabinet news conference while thanking Mahathir for his comments.
Muhyiddin, 72, stormed into power last week after back-door political maneuverings led to Mahathir’s resignation, which brought about the collapse of the pro-reform ruling alliance. He was sworn in by the king on March 1.
The new premier on Monday unveiled a roster of 31 Cabinet ministers dominated by ethnic Malays, the majority of Malaysia’s 32 million people. The appointments include nine posts going to politicians from the corruption-tainted United Malays National Organization (UMNO) party.
He also chose 38 deputy ministers but scrapped the position of deputy prime minister. Instead, he appointed four senior ministers – Ismail Sabri Yaakob for defense, Azmin Ali for international trade and industry, Fadillah Yusof for public works and Radzi Jidin for education – allowing them to chair cabinet meetings in his absence.
Muhyiddin told reporters that he sought forgiveness from his predecessor in a letter sent last week, in which he also asked for an endorsement of his new government.
“I asked for his forgiveness if I hurt his feelings with the things that happened over the last few days,” Muhyiddin said. “I want Tun [Mahathir] to endorse this government. It is legal it is constitutional.”
He said Mahathir replied in a letter, saying “it was not the time yet for a meeting.”
Muhyiddin’s rise to power came after a week of political crisis with twists and turns that kept the nation riveted to news reports.
He consolidated his legislative support by forming a new coalition with the Islamist party PAS and the old ruling party, UMNO, which has ex-leaders including former PM Najib Razak who are facing trial for corruption charges related to the alleged multibillion-dollar theft from state fund 1MDB.
The new leader’s first cabinet meeting occurred as health authorities across the globe grappled with alarming clusters of COVID-19, including Malaysia, where 149 cases had been reported as of Wednesday. Worldwide, about 118,000 have been infected and more than 4,200 have died.
Muhyiddin said he would review to determine if a planned 20 billion ringgit ($4.73 billion) stimulus package announced by the former government last month should be increased. He said he would create a council to tackle the economic and trade impacts of the virus.
He also appealed to Malaysians to allow the new government to prove itself.
“Come on, give us a chance,” he said.
Malaysia to mend ties with Saudi Arabia, India
Meanwhile, after reporting to work for the first time as Malaysia’s new foreign minister, Hishamuddin Hussein said he would focus on repairing ties with Saudi Arabia and India, which frayed under the previous government’s convening of a Muslim summit and criticism of Delhi’s crackdown on Muslim-majority Kashmir.
Hishamuddin, who served as defense minister in Najib’s government until Mahathir’s coalition scored a stunning election triumph in May 2018, said he had called his Saudi counterpart prior to his first cabinet meeting under the new government.
“The leadership of Saudi said they will ask Prince Faisal bin Farhan to come to Malaysia to meet the new foreign and foreign deputy minister,” he said.
The Prime Minister’s Office had received calls and expressions of support from foreign ministries of China, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Indonesia and Thailand, Muhyiddin said.
During his news conference, Muhyiddin said Malaysia would continue hosting direct peace talks between neighbor Thailand and Deep South insurgents “as long as it is good for the country and the people concerned.”
Abdul Rahim Noor, the facilitator of the Kuala Lumpur-brokered peace process in the Thai Deep South, told BenarNews early this month that he would brief Muhyiddin about efforts to end the long-running separatist insurgency.
Thai officials had confirmed that Thailand and BRN had opened direct talks aimed at settling the long-running conflict, which has claimed more than 7,000 lives in the mainly Muslim and Malay-speaking Deep South region since 2004.
“We will look in a general way at government foreign policy which we have implemented to date, which is quite good. We will continue it,” Muhyiddin said, replying to a question from BenarNews.
“However if there are certain changes that we need to execute to make our policy more clear, we will do it,” he said.